Scenes from my very early life fill my mind, and they come as welcome guests. The feel and sounds and smells of our home in Jersey City—a place I haven’t entered in decades—are real to me again, as is the sound of my mother’s voice, the taste of her cooking, the touch of her soft hand. These memories are some of God’s secret gifts to me in my old age. When I am immersed in them I become free like the child I once was, rather than the old and crippled man I have become. “I dwell in possibility,” wrote Emily Dickinson over a century ago, and I always thought she must have been thinking of a child. Like all children, I once dwelled in a special kind of possibility. For a child who has not yet been hurt by the world, as we all must be, everything is bright and filled with unending wonder, limitless possibility.
It seems that God has allowed me to dwell in possibility again, to return to those days long gone. As the sunset fades I become five years old, a little boy with his dad. My father is tall and strong, and I am absolutely confident that he can do anything. I am fiercely proud of him and hope that one day I will be just like him. He is an engineer and leaves our home every day to build buildings in other places, places that seem far away and mysterious to me. We are walking, father and son, and this walking is becoming difficult for me. My father’s legs are too long and I can’t keep up. We are going somewhere important and we must not be late, so I do my best. I am almost running, but I still fall behind. I feel that I am failing, but my wonderful father does not let me fail; he swoops down like a big, strong bird, and in an instant I am held high in his arms. He doesn’t even break his stride to pick me up, and he carries me easily through the crowded streets. He runs up the steps of Corpus Christi Church in Hasbrouck Heights, as if I weigh nothing. Just before we go in, as he pulls the hat off his head, he reminds me to be good, not to speak, to pay attention, to pray to Jesus. He calls me “Peter,” as does everyone in my family, everyone I know. I was just Peter then; Benedict Joseph did not yet exist. We arrive just in time for Mass; my Father carries me into a pew and deposits me on the seat.
I still remember the name of the priest. It was Father Fitzpatrick, and I tried to pay attention, to understand what this man in his golden vestments was doing at the marble altar. I couldn’t, for he spoke a strange language and did many strange things. In fact, at times it seemed as if he wasn’t doing much at all. But I knew differently because my father and my mother had told me that something wonderful happened when priests like Father Fitzpatrick were at the altar. They told me that Jesus was also there, that He comes to be with us because He loves us.
My attention wandered from Father Fitzpatrick and became fixed on the tabernacle—although I don’t think I knew that word then. It was a gleaming gold box at the very center of the altar, and I knew it was very important because my father had told me so. He told me that in this tabernacle dwells Jesus Himself. I tried to understand how this could be so, but I could not—the box looked too small and not at all like a home. But I knew my father would never lie to me, so I believed. Mostly during the Mass the tabernacle remained closed. But occasionally Father Fitzpatrick opened it, and each time he did I strained, trying to make myself tall enough get a good look at what was inside. I could never quite manage it, and that was frustrating because I wanted very much to see Jesus’ house.
I thought very hard, trying to understand how Jesus could be in this box. I couldn’t figure it out. The best I could do was to think of my last visit to my cousin Julie’s home. She was a couple of years older than I, and she had a doll house. It was fitted out with a kitchen, a living room, a dining room and a couple of bedrooms. Could it be that inside the tabernacle Jesus was living in something like that? To my five-year-old mind it seemed almost reasonable, and I began to wonder if Jesus had a bed in there or a lamp. Did He even need a lamp? I was dying to know these things and so much more. I craved a glance inside the tabernacle. I was sure that if I could see inside even for an instant all my theological questions would be answered. I believed that if I could just be tall enough I would see the Jesus to whom I prayed every night. I was nowhere near tall enough and I went home unsatisfied. My desire to see Jesus remained with me for the whole day. It intensified every time my parents took me to Mass until finally it became something that simply would not leave.
Perhaps this was a beginning.